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Soon enough

I better watch what I say. I might get what I want.

They told me that the letter carrier’s job was the hardest in the Postal Service. They said I’d be working six-day, 50- to 60-hour weeks. They said I’d work every Sunday and holiday.

Who’s they? They are nearly every postal employee I’ve met since I started this adventure on November 6.

First, it was the supervisor, who laid out very carefully the Post Office mandate. “The postal service never sleeps,” she told me. It was going to be an all-weather job, and the mail goes through no matter what. Rain, snow, heat, gloom of night. That stuff’s real.”

The actual quote goes, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Herodotus would be proud the hear his words used in an official government building 2,500 years after he first wrote them.

Now, she was nice. Really. She was a gentle person, sincerely thoughtful and open. She asked me why I’d want to be a carrier.

“I mean, I saw your resume,” she said, as we sat in the functional but stark waiting room at the Kansas City Main Post Office. Headshots of military veterans working for the Postal Service ran down the wall under six-inch blue and red stripes. “You’ve written books. You’re a doctor. What’s the deal?”

I wanted to tell her I needed a damn job. After months of looking, I could find nothing. What I did find was that being 57 and having a Ph.D. were obstacles to gainful employment.

But I told her the truth. “Ever since I was a kid,” I said, “I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to carry the mail.”

As soon as I told her that, I thought how long are the roads that lead us where we are going. I became a writer when I was 33. That’s when it finally penetrated my brain that critique, criticism, and rejection are not personal. They are facts of the writer’s life.

And now, here I stood, two days after my 57th birthday, signing the contract that would lead me to today and the city assistant carrier (CCA) job I have now.

Then, at orientation, a two-day affair with the most diverse group of people anyone can imagine, the learning-and-development person told us that, “My CCAs out there. Who are you? Raise your hands . . . Those people have what I think is the most difficult job in the Post Office. They work and work and work. A CCA will carry the mail on Sunday. They will carry it on holidays. They will work outside in the coldest and hottest weather. If you’re a CCA, you’re in for a hell of a ride.”

Following orientation, we had two days of driver training. Getting used to the righthand-drive Grumman Long-Life Vehicle (the typical postal truck) was easy. As we drove the course—backing up, parallel parking, taking oblique corners, and so on—the career letter carriers teaching the course told me that as a CCA, I’d wonder when I’d sleep. “You’re coming on in the season,” he said. He was a tall, rugged-looking man who stood about a head taller than me. “You’ll be working sometimes 12-hour days.”

After driving school, I shadowed a carrier for a day. He was a nice guy, small but powerful. He’d been a carrier for 16 years, which meant from the looks of him that he started when he was about 12. (He was 38.) He answered all my questions. Efficient and light on his feet, he knew the neighborhood and could call people by their names. He did little things like deliver to a side door to a house for a blind woman who had problems getting out her front door and chat with a neighbor who kept getting mail for the previous resident from the people who substituted the route.

“Get ready,” he said. “They are going to work your ass off.”

Then, I had four days off. The next step in the journey is on-the-job training, where I go out and help a carrier on his or her route. This five-day training sets me up to take off on my own.

The problem is that we are in the “season” and the station manager doesn’t want to send a CCA out for OJT when mail volume is so high and people are almost running to get their routes done. The carrier wouldn’t be a good instructor and I wouldn’t get the training I needed.

I thought, well, that’s all right. I can deliver Amazon packages. I’ve had driving school. I can find addresses. But when I went in today, my first day in the station, the managers didn’t want to send me out because they said I wouldn’t know what I was doing. Maybe so. They have been at it for years and should know what they are talking about.

All right again. I like being broken into a job lightly, one step at a time. I spent part of my time in the office in the break room, waiting for something to do. When the truck arrived, I “threw” packages—helped sort the parcels that were misdelivered or set out on routes where they didn’t belong. This was a simple sort of task. I held packages under a scanner. The computer told me which bins they went into, and I tossed them in.

It was kind of fun, three of us rotating under the scanner, packages flying, cages and bins emptying. But there was only so much work. They sent me home at 1 p.m. I had gone to the station expecting ten or more hours. I was trying to figure out how I’d get enough sleep before I had to be in the next morning.

It was a letdown after all that hype. I started December 7 and expected after hearing what I heard to be working in the small hours, getting the mail through. So far, though, they have taken it easy on me. I didn’t want to go home today. We need the money and I want the hours. The more I work, the closer I get to that career-carrier position I used to dream of when I was a kid. I’m going to be the friendly neighborhood postman, the Mr. McFeely of whatever neighborhood I wind up in.

Though I’m aching to get started, I better watch out. I may just get those 12- and 14-hour days before I know it. Then, I’ll be dreaming of the salad days when I was new and stupid and not jaded by the long hours, the tussles with management over how long a route is taking me, the hassles of delivering in a foot of snow. I’ll yearn for time to write. Books will stack up next to the bed, having never been cracked.

When I came home this afternoon, I was frustrated. Virginia told me to take it easy, enjoy the time when I have it because I may not have it soon.

So, I did what she said and took a nap, a daily ritual that’s sure to end soon enough.

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